15 High Street: flowers, films, bombs and bingo

Long and Lazy Lewisham part 2: 15 High Street

For the second part of our route down the High Street, we again find ourselves primarily looking at buildings that are no longer there and have left little in the way of physical traces. This time we are looking at just one address – 15 High Street – and the space behind it.

The area in question today – from OpenStreetMap

Granville lodge and Granville nursery

Like many local roads and buildings, the first buildings on this site carried the name Granville. Not far away we have Granville Park, leading up to Granville House overlooking Blackheath, and Granville Grove (formerly Granville Road) behind the Police Station. In the nineteenth century there was also a Granville House on the High Street, where the Police Station is now, a Granville Terrace nearby and a Granville Mews (now Myron Place by the bowling alley on Belmont Hill, where the old name is still visible). [Update June 2021] This common name to so much in the area is derived from the landowners, the Eliot family, the head of which in the mid 19th century was Edward Granville Eliot, 3rd Earl St Germans (see more here).

If, like Edward Pook, we had been waiting on Plough Bridge in 1871, a building called Granville Lodge would have been clearly visible at the end of the row of houses known as Bridge Place (see the previous post in this series). Granville Lodge sat at the end of that row, between it and the new St Stephen’s Terrace (subject of the next post). It seems to have been built earlier than the church and new houses, as it appears on Stanford’s 1862 map of Greenwich and the north of Lewisham.

In 1871, when Pook probably passed it frequently, the house was occupied by William Whiteley and his wife Harriet, along with their four children. William was a junior clerk in a solicitor’s office; like Harriet he was born in Westminster, while their children were born in other places around London, suggesting the family had not been in Lewisham for very long at that stage.

The Whiteleys were something of an exception among the residents of the house, which by 1881 had become “Granville Nursery”, run by James Dibbins and employing 11 men. Dibbins lived there with his wife – another Harriet – two daughters and three sons.

The large house at Granville Lodge/15 High Street and the accompanying nursery in the 1890s – OS map from Layers of London

This Ordnance Survey map from the 1890s clearly shows the large house with the nursery behind it; the cross-hatched boxes indicating glass-covered buildings, presumably greenhouses.

In 1891, florist Louis Seymour, his wife Jane, and their six children lived in the property – now more mundanely recorded in the census as number 15 but probably still trading as Granville nursery. It is advertised under that name in the Kent Mercury by an S.P. Simon in 1892, from 1894 by a Charles J Gatehouse, and in 1901 by a Bertie Skelton (also recorded there in the census).

Advert in the Woolwich Gazette, 4 August 1894 (from British Newspaper Archive)

By the turn of the century, a number 15A (presumably part of the large house) was also being listed as a trade property, first by C Hawksworth and Co bootmaker (in 1898) and later by watchmaker Joseph Kirby. In 1911, the nursery business appears to have closed down and the house was occupied by an out of work boiler maker Thomas Stace and his wife Elizabeth.

King’s Hall

In December 1912, the site was launched into a new and radically different role, with the opening of The King’s Hall Picture Palace. While its licence began only on Boxing Day, the grand opening took place the previous weekend on 21 December. In place of the large house and nursery, there was now a grand frontage and a 1,232-capacity cinema.

The grand facade of the King’s Hall, c 1912 from Borough Photos: Lewisham

A 1918 article in the Kinematograph Weekly (19 Dec) describes it as “A superb structure in all respects, asserting itself as one of the principal local public buildings [….] its exterior, with marble steps, partakes of church-like characteristics, and might easily be mistaken for a religious fane.” It goes on to describe the interior: “A singularly attractive feature is the dignified architectural scheme of the auditorium, which contains a stage and a commodious balcony, with the beautiful frieze of allegorical figures.”

The auditorium of the King’s Hall, uploaded by Mike Blakemore at Cinema Treasures

The article goes on to describe how, “A noble crush hall of vast proportions obviates the necessity of waiting patrons lining up outside.” We can see from the photo of the building’s entrance above and contemporary maps that the main body of the cinema was indeed set back from the road, giving space for the vast ‘crush hall’.

The shape of the cinema, from a post-1945 OS map – image from Layers of London

Ken George’s excellent little book ‘Two Sixpennies Please’ gives us much detail of this cinema (informing much of this post), and others in the district. He tells us that “The most up-to-date electrical thermostatically-controlled apparatus, the ‘Grundy System’, determined the heating and ventilation, and diffused lighting was installed throughout.” The stalls could hold 748 seated and 234 standing, while the ‘commodious balcony’ held another 175 seated and 75 standing.

The cinema was owned by a businessman called Mr Hallinan and run by an A.E. Radcliffe as general manager. Both appear to have previously been involved in the King’s Hall cinema in Tooting and Leyton: Hallinan is mentioned in articles online about them and Radcliffe’s work is referred to in the Kinomatograph Weekly article mentioned above.

One slightly surprising thing is how long it took for cinemas to open at this end of the district, close to Lewisham Junction station. In all, Ken George lists 14 cinemas opening in the current Lewisham borough (then two Metropolitan Boroughs – Lewisham and Deptford) before the Obelisk opened on Loampit Vale in May 1912 and the (much larger) King’s Hall in December. The Lewisham Electric Palace had opened at 210 High Street in 1909, but by comparison with Deptford, Forest Hill and Sydenham, there were few venues in Lewisham itself. Perhaps it was the lack of available and appealing sites near the train station that stalled development here until Hallinan obtained the plot at 15 High Street.

Whatever caused the delay, the cinema appears to have been very successful. During the Great War it hosted fund-raising events for Lewisham Military Hospital, but remained open (unlike some local cinemas that were requisitioned by the military) – albeit with at least 22 members of staff joining the armed forces. In 1916, the Kinomatograph Weekly reported that Radcliffe had “maintain[ed] the high prestige of the King’s Hall” and that ‘Among the Big Game in Wildest Africa’ “has almost equalled the success of the Somme film”, which is saying something given that the Somme film was the most popular film in Britain for 60 years!

Under new management after the war, the cinema was redecorated and some new seating installed. That seats could be (and were) pre-booked must surely attest to its popularity. Ken George notes the new management’s introduction of competitions and ‘lucky programmes’ and we can see one of their innovations: a “Masked Players Contest” in 1928 with £325 in prizes. Note also the advertising now covering the windows above the side doorways.

The cinema appears to have had a slightly ambivalent attitude to the new ‘Talkies’ when they arrived in 1930, installing equipment to play them but stressing that it would prioritise silent movies.

The King’s Hall must have been one of the first London cinemas to be closed due to enemy bombing during the Second World War. The that damaged the old Station and Bridge place on 7 September – the first night of the Blitz – also damaged the cinema. Less than a year after it reopened in August 1943, the building was again damaged, this time by a V1 flying bomb on 3 July 1944. The damage can clearly by seen in the 1945 aerial photo, and the proximity to the V1 strike makes its closure in 1944 unsurprising.

Circle showing the site of a V1 fliying bomb strike immediately behind the cinema, the red marking meaning ‘seriously damaged’. Image from Layers of London
Damage to the cinema building is clearly visible in this 1945 RAF aerial photo © IWM CH 15109

If it was the first to close, it was also apparently the “First cinema to be reconstructed in London after the war” according to a report in 1950 quoted by Ken George, who notes that the auditorium walls were damaged but could be reused, and even that the magnificent frontage – although damaged – survived the war, albeit to then be encased under brown brickwork as the cinema was remodelled and rebranded as the Rex cinema (with a state-of-the-art projector).

The Rex during its time as a bingo hall – from Borough Photos: Lewisham

After a brief stint as a bingo hall in 1967, it reopened as Studios 6 and 7 in 1969. Cinema Treasures notes that this reopening – by the Star Cinema chain – included two separate screens, with seating for 515 in Studio 6, and 372 in Studio 7 (roughly the same as the seated capacity of the single-screen King’s Hall back in 1912). After a final couple of months under the name Cannon 1 and 2 the cinema closed for good in 1986 and was demolished in 1988.

Studio 6 & 7 cinema, circa 1977 – from Borough Photos: Lewisham

Today

The site has now been turned into housing, including a new block of housing (Drovers Court) and the offices of a housing association built on the old nursery site (Beaver House, named after the original owners, now merged into L&Q). The name of the road built to access these buildings harked back to the most glamorous incarnation of the site: King’s Hall Mews.

It is a pleasant surprise that the redevelopment included the construction of a new house at the end of what was St Stephen’s Terrace, which blends quite well into the row of houses built there over a century before. Whereas their predecessors lived at a number 15 attached to the old Bridge Place, the new residents live a few yards away attached to the rather-grander number 17.

Which leads us on to St Stephen’s church and Terrace…

Main sources:

2 thoughts on “15 High Street: flowers, films, bombs and bingo

  1. The reason there are so many “Granvilles” is that the land belonged to the Earls of St Germans” one is whose family names is Granville. They owned extensive land in the area hence St Germains Place on the edge of Blackheath. And there are several “Eliots” (Eliot Vale, Eliot Hill etc). “Eliot” is another of their names and their country seat is still there in Cornwall and is called Port Eliot.

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